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Shirley Cash speaks with real enthusiasm about the benefits of using reflexology with the men and women of Waterside House in Wednesfield. Residents who become too uncomfortable to lie in bed at night find themselves falling asleep for an hour or so during the day as Shirley gently massages their hands and feet. They feel relief from swollen ankles and their whole body becomes more relaxed, says Shirley.

She has even convinced her two sceptical sons – aged 18 and 29 – of the benefits. “Can you do my feet, Mum?” asks one, when his back is aching or he feels stressed about work. One son has even lost weight as a result of the treatment. Shirley says that the reflexology led him to think about his whole lifestyle and diet, and that the effects have been remarkable.

The term ‘Complementary Therapy’ is generally used to describe therapies that differ from orthodox Western medicine, and which may complement, support or sometimes replace it. MHA is especially interested in the effects of reflexology – a form of ancient Chinese medicine that involves the massage of reflex areas found in the feet and hands. In a pioneering move, the organisation has decided to make this and other complementary therapies available to all residents free of charge as an integral part of the care they receive week by week.

It’s a development that underlines MHA’s commitment to exploring every avenue in order to ensure the well-being of older people. It also suggests that our understanding of such therapies has come a long way over the past few decades. “It’s all about the whole person,” says Shirley – an approach that reflects MHA’s own emphasis on spiritual, as well as physical, care. “Reflexology is a very pleasant treatment,” says Anna Lovett, Activities Co-ordinator at Willersley House in Hull. “We use a relaxing recliner chair and soothing music, and we begin by massaging feet.” This, Anna points out, is a rare experience, especially for older people.

The main benefit of the reflexology for her residents, she says, is its relaxing effect. “It takes their mind off worries, problem and pains.” At Maple Leaf House in Ripley, for example, the effect of using reflexology with one resident has been to calm her otherwise continuous shaking. Her physical well-being improves markedly during these sessions, say those who work with her. Indeed, the calming effect of the massage therapy seems to carry over to some extent into the rest of her week. Susan Rocks, Services Manager, observes that much can be communicated to a person through touch alone. Shirley agrees:“Sometimes it says more than words just holding their hands.” This can be especially significant for people who have dementia or are in the palliative stages of disease.

In such instances touch is often the only method of communication possible. Shirley and Anna are just two of the 55 members of MHA staff across the country that have recently qualified or are in training to offer reflexology. Some are Activities Co-ordinators, but not all. Every member of staff has been offered the opportunity to apply for training, and all those who are successful are being awarded a Diploma in Reflexology from the Bayly School of Reflexology, the first reflexology training school to be established in Great Britain. Each qualified MHA practitioner is allocated seven hours every week in order to offer the therapy free of charge, always in agreement with an individual’s own GP and only in the light of a person’s medical history.

The aim is that reflexology will become available in every MHA project across the country. “At present, the expected level of improvement in health and well-being can only be guessed at,” says Susan Rocks. “However it is hoped that we can establish a way to assess the impact of this project throughout the coming months.” If Anna and Shirley’s experiences are anything to go by, the prospects for MHA residents look very good indeed. At Willersley House, says Anna, only one person had ever experienced the treatment before she began offering it. Now, “all of the residents have said it’s wonderful and they are advising others to have a go."

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